Dominic Ongwen: born at the time of the white ant, tried by the ICC – By Thijs B. Bouwknegt
Shortly, Dominic Ongwen will be the first commander of an internationally listed terrorist organisation to give acte de presence at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Coming from the “˜bush’, he arrives in gloomy and wintery The Hague, almost a decade after the world’s permanent atrocity court dispensed arrest warrants for him and four fellow rebellious leaders of the sectarian Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Infamously guided by the schizophrenic self-proclaimed spokesperson of God, Joseph Kony, the mob brutalised the people it claimed to be fighting for: the Acholi in northern Uganda. Instead of fulfilling its dream to fashion a theocracy based on the Bible’s Ten Commandments and Acholi folklore, the LRA embarked on a crusade of terror.
Emblematically, the LRA’s ghastly initiation rituals notoriously encompassed cutting of limbs, lips and ears of civilians, kidnapping and indoctrinating thousands of kids to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. Ongwen was himself captured and whipped as a poor child. Ironically, it is now he, himself, who faces allegations of crimes against humanity and war crimes, perpetrated when he was grown man.
And the charges are no child’s play: murder, enslavement, inhumane acts, cruel treatment, attacking civilians and pillaging. A complicated challenge surfaces for current Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who co-signed the warrants when she was still a deputy. In the eyes of public opinion on the troubled ICC, it is far from a comfortable case, which comes at an inconvenient time. Brushing off the dust of a dormant criminal file with a former child soldier turned “˜terrorist’ in the dock is perhaps not the desired “˜easy catch’ the war crimes court is after. And where to hold the hearings, if it comes to trial?
Born at the time of the white ant
At some point in the wet season of 1980, Alexy Acayo and Ronald Owiya, two schoolteachers living in Paibona, fíªted the birth of their fourth child: Dominic Okumu Savio. Times were tough. When Dominic was five or six years old, Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) overthrew the short-lived military junta of Tito Okello, who hailed from Dominic’s home region, Acholiland. Okello’s forces repelled and a protracted bloody bush war was soon to dominate the youngster’s life, living in fear of NRA midnight marauds, killings and rapes. But danger lingered everywhere. Forced recruitment by rebel-turned Acholi combatants also loomed, at a time when the spiritual leader Alice Auma’s (a.k.a. Lakwena) Holy Spirit Movement and her Holy Mobile Force morphed the skirmishes into a quasi-sectarian feud.
When Lakwena was defeated and exiled in 1988, her relative and former choirboy Joseph Kony – known to be haunted by spirits – withdrew from the Holy Spirit remnants and reconstituted them into what became the LRA. Now dreading snatching and subsequent intimidation and retaliation by Kony’s racketeers, Dominic’s parents re-baptised their son Ongwen (“born at the time of the white ant”). Sadly, the schoolboy had to use that alias in 1990, during his last walk to Abili Primary School in Koro. Some accounts narrate that the ten-year-old, small and frail boy was seized and carried by other captives and placed under the helm of lapwony (teacher) Vincent Otti, then still a junior commander, reportedly killed a few years ago but currently remaining an ICC fugitive.
Rise to the Control Altar
An illiterate youngster, Ongwen, underwent the LRA’s violent and disorienting rites de passage and “˜education’; he was to forget his former life and was taught that he was predestined to fight for the rights of his Acholi people. The false name he gave his captors soon turned into his nom de guerre. Other abductees, his former little boy and girl fighters, have said Ongwen was a formidable child warrior, conducting successful raids, capturing fighters and weaponry. He rose within the ranks and moved to southern Sudan sometime in 1993 or 1994, where Kony fought a proxy battle against the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which was backed by Kampala. In Sudan, Ongwen was put in charge of field operations, conducting raids and organising abductions of children from northern Uganda.
The white ant was good at his job. Kony supposedly praised him as a role model for other abducted children and let him rise in the LRA ranks. At 18 he was personally promoted to lieutenant. In the early 2000’s, Ongwen – who by then was a known assassin, a loyal fighter and outliving his superiors – became commander of the Sinia Brigade and entered the “˜Control Altar’, the core LRA leadership. At this time, the war reached a new peak. In March 2002 the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) launched operation “˜Iron Fist’ against LRA bases in Sudan. But the guerrilla rebels hit back with relentless large-scale brutalities across northern Uganda: massacring, marauding thousands of progenies and displacing hundreds of thousands of ordinary Ugandans. Over 1.6 million Ugandans had fled their homes by 2003 and had settled in so-called Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) camps.
Diplomacy of justice
“The conflict in northern Uganda is the biggest forgotten, neglected humanitarian emergency in the world today,” UN officials decried at the end of 2003. But Museveni, the country’s President since 1986, lamented the lack of actual international assistance to help stop the LRA, even though the post-9/11 USA administration had declared it a terrorist group in 2001. “Having exhausted every other means of bringing an end to this terrible suffering, the Republic of Uganda now turns to the newly established ICC and its promise of global justice,” Museveni’s Attorney General wrote in a 27-page letter referring the case to the freshly appointed court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo. On 16 December 2003 Uganda requested “that investigations focus on the persons most responsible for such crimes, namely LRA members in positions of command and control, especially because a significant proportion of low-ranking perpetrators are forcibly conscripted children that have committed crimes under duress, and thus are themselves victims of the LRA leadership.”
Kampala further pledged “its full cooperation to the Prosecutor in the investigation and prosecution of LRA crimes […]” and sent along documentation on LRA atrocities. Time for diplomacy of justice. In the next month, after Museveni and Ocampo discussed the details of the referral and agreed on practical and political arrangements in a hotel in London, the Argentinean prosecutor happily and proudly announced the start of planning for the court’s first inquiry. Meanwhile, atrocities kept piling up. Barlonyo, a large IDP camp was attacked on 21 February 2004, with Okot Odhiambo’s LRA “˜Trinkle’ brigade allegedly shooting, hacking and burning to death over 200 people. Ocampo was somewhat immodest in his claims, envisioning that his international justice intervention would help end the decade-old war. He quickly promised “that the crimes committed in Barlonya camp will be investigated and that those bearing the greatest responsibility will be prosecuted.” The prime focus was the LRA, not Museveni’s forces.
But time passed by as Ocampo was still hiring lawyers, analysts and investigators into his newly created, but still small, Office of The Prosecutor (OTP), while also dividing labour between the Democratic Republic of Congo’s war torn-Ituri region and northern Uganda and eyeballing Darfur. A so-called “Uganda joint team”- including a dozen investigators, analysts and trial lawyers, led by American prosecutor Christine Chung – was recruited in early 2004. There was no scarcity of sources. Uganda, as promised in its referral, was a key investigating partner and shipped piles of reports and evidence of LRA activities to The Hague, including intercepted radio and satellite phone communications. With a strong appetite to start trials, prosecutors Ocampo, Bensouda, Chung and Eric MacDonald went into overdrive. Tight deadlines left no time for thorough collection and broad analysis of existing information. But, according to case-leader Chung, in an interview with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) “[…] many think for too long [and] at some point you need to go to the field.”
Indictments to go
So, pressure was mounting. Ocampo was calculating that talks between the LRA and Kampala were swiftly progressing and that he could contribute to a potential peace agreement with international justice. In the event that the LRA militants suddenly came out of the bush, he wanted indictments “˜ready-to-go’. Rushing to produce arrest warrants, the OTP lawyers, by September, had already selected six local attacks carried out between July 2002 and July 2004, handpicked specific crime types and identified several suspects for the cases they wanted to present. Under that blueprinted directive, a small multinational investigation team was sent into the field. Astonishingly enough, none of the seven on-ground investigators had a police background. They were often flanked by a couple of analysts from the office’s Jurisdiction, Complementarity and Cooperation Division (JCCD) and trial lawyers Chung and MacDonald.
As the six crime scenes in Gulu, Lira and Soroti districts were already deemed too old, forensic evidence was not trailed. Instead, during over 50 missions in little more than half a year, the investigators identified, heard and collected testimonies from a wide range of witnesses: victims in refugee camps, insiders among LRA defectors within the Ugandan Army and former child soldiers as well as several overview witnesses. In contrast to the simultaneously on-going probe in eastern Congo, witnesses in the still volatile Uganda were directly accessible and recourse to the controversial use of intermediaries was unnecessary. In Uganda, the biggest challenge was to keep the number of witnesses small but of “˜smoking gun’ quality, something that, according to former investigators, worked out rather well.
From the outset, the targets were clear: the quasi-military structure of the LRA’s leadership was well known. So was Sinia Brigade Commander Ongwen. The white ant’s name had already surfaced in the preliminary phase and the evidence collected indeed connected him to at least one of the six attacks under investigation. That attack was part of Ocampo’s application for arrest warrants in May 2005, only ten months after the start of the investigation. After pre-trial judges Tuiloma Neroni Slade, Mauro Politi and Fatoumata Dembele Diarra reviewed the prosecutor’s evidence and other information, the courts’ first ever arrest warrants were issued in July. Dominic, LRA leader Joseph Kony, Vice-chief Vincent Otti and Commanders Raska Lukwiya and Okot Odhiambo altogether became wanted men for an aggregated 86 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Seven atrocity counts pertain to Ongwen. In a heavily redacted warrant, only a glimpse of the case narrative against him transpires. In general terms, it summarises a cycle of violence and pattern of brutalisation of civilians since at least 1987, including from 1 July – the date from when the ICC has jurisdiction. Central to the story is that Kony in 2003 “issued broad orders to target and kill civilian populations” and “to loot and abduct civilians.” Recordings of intercepted radio communications, accounts of defected LRA members and witness and victims’ accounts allegedly show Dominic’s “direct involvement with the objectives and strategies of the campaign as a whole,” the warrant reads. To be specific, he is charged in relation to “the REDACTED IDP Camp […] forming part of the REDACTED campaign and having occurred in REDACTED 2004.”
It appears – yet remains unconfirmed – that Odhiambo stands charged with the Barlonyo attack. We only know that the assault attributed to Ongwen occurred sometime before July 2004. In any case, in the radio communications with the Control Altar Ongwen allegedly acknowledged that he was the commander of the LRA forces that attacked the camp by “shooting and beating civilian residents, burning huts and looting.” An undisclosed number of people were killed, abducted and injured during the violence. With all its redactions, the charge sheet had been kept under seal, probably in order to safeguard the witnesses and not to put Ongwen and the four other suspects on notice. But then, on 30 September, the Prosecutor was informed that during yet another LRA attack on an IDP camp, Ongwen was killed by Ugandan forces. It prompted Ocampo to publicise all arrest warrants two weeks later, saying “civilians in Northern Uganda have been living in a nightmare of brutality and violence for more than nineteen years. I believe that, working together, we will help bring justice, peace and security for the people of Northern Uganda.”
It was a message in vain; the five warrants were forwarded to Uganda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but remained vacant. Without its own police force, the ICC could only hope for arrests made by others, including Ugandan forces. Meanwhile, 8 months after the public announcement of the warrants, the pre-trial bench released the results of a DNA test on Ongwen’s alleged dead body: it was negative. Dominic was thus still alive and Interpol promptly issued a Red Notice for the LRA commander. But the group had already left Uganda, scattered across the region and the fugitives were successfully hiding. By July 2006, the court believed that the white ant was somewhere in the South-East Equatorial Province in southern Sudan, “attempting to cross the Nile to join the hidden LRA Headquarters in north Congo.”
An ant in the bush
Relative calm had reached northern Uganda by mid-2006. But the LRA had become a regional threat, exporting their reign of terror to DR Congo, Sudan and eventually extending it to the Central African Republic (CAR). Ongwen’s troops were reported terrorising communities in Congo’s Haut Uele and Bas Uele districts. In December 2009, Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the massacre of at least 345 civilians and abduction of another 250 during a four-day rampage in Makombo. Tracked by various forces, including special Ugandan and American forces, and with a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, Ongwen managed to remain elusive until his 25-years in the bush ended in the Central African Republic early this year.
As a UN commission of inquiry published its report about ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the CAR since 2013, Ongwen reportedly fell in the hands of US “˜peacekeeping’ forces – via Islamic Seleka fighters – and their Ugandan allies stationed in the largely forgotten war-torn country. In a prefab hut, he was waiting to be flown (“transferred”) to The Netherlands by the CAR authorities. “The man has been in the bush for most of his life fighting and eating rats but now he is in our (UPDF) custody eating chicken. He is happy that he will get justice at the ICC,” Ugandan army spokesperson Paddy Ankunda was reported saying. And indeed, in a video on the web, Ongwen is seen walking around a compound, having dinner and laughing. Since last weekend, he has been in the custody of the ICC. In The Hague, when he arrives at the Scheveningen prison he will get his medical and psychological check-up, a lawyer and two suits to appear neatly before three international judges. While awaiting his trial from his cell, he can spend time following educational courses, share dinners with convicted Congolese war criminals and work out in the gym.
But the court was not expecting another suspect. It is a public secret that it is inconvenient timing. Already investigating atrocities in at least eight conflict situations, Bensouda launched a preliminary examination on the occupied Palestinian territories on 16 January. Re-opening Ongwen’s dormant dossier will increase the burden on Bensouda’s already overworked prosecution service. Her minimalistic 47 million dollar budget has already been fully committed to other cases, court sources complain. Financial and human resources are scarce, while locating the old witnesses against Ongwen – who ever since the investigations were fully closed nine and a half years ago may have died, disappeared or turned unwilling to testify – and possibly collecting new testimony may be a costly exercise. So anybody expecting a quick trial, or a list of additional charges, is likely to be disappointed. Simply look at the case of Bosco Ntaganda, the renegade Rwando-Congolese warlord who surprisingly surrendered to the court in March 2013. After additional investigations in Ituri and a close review of the current evidence, judges found “reasonable grounds” to start his trial only next summer. International justice moves at a snail’s pace.
As clear-cut and obvious the allegations against the White Ant may appear in the public eye, an actual trial for the former child soldier is – next to its ethical and legal dilemmas – not a certainty. After he makes his initial appearance at the court – introducing himself and listening to the charges being read out to him – the judges will test if the current and possibly newly retrieved evidence is sufficient to put him to trial. Practice in other cases has proved this to be a protracted legal procedure that warrants no guarantees for success. If at all, it is unclear if ICC justice will finally be done for LRA atrocities. And if the trial does proceed, the question still arises whether justice will be seen to be done. Hidden on the dreary outskirts of The Hague, ICC trials have so far been conducted in The Netherlands and seats at the court’s public galleries have remained disturbingly empty. Victims, in whose name the ICC purports to operate, are only made apparent by their absence or as numbers in case filings. It is simply too far away from the African crime scenes the court has dealt with thus far. Under the court’s rules, however opportunities loom, a trial chamber can decide to sit elsewhere. Now that the court has executed one of its first ever arrest warrants, it may choose to have its hearings elsewhere, close to the crime scene and in view of its people: in Uganda. In any other case, the white ant will soon disappear into a nest of oblivion.
Thijs B. Bouwknegt is a Trial Monitor, International Justice & Universal Jurisdiction and Ph.D. Researcher at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam.
“˜Dilemma of the white ant’ (documentary: http://vimeo.com/8715070).
“˜Erin K. Baines, “˜Complex political perpetrators: reflections on Dominic Ongwen’, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 47, no. 2 (June 2009) 163-191.
“˜Peace versus justice’ (documentary: http://tegenlicht.vpro.nl/afleveringen/2009-2010/heilige-huisjes/peace-versus-justice.html
Alfred Wandera, “˜I’m lucky to be alive – Ongwen’, NewVision, 15 January 2015 (www-text: http://www.newvision.co.ug/news/663746-i-m-lucky-to-be-alive-ongwen.html)
Human Rights Watch (HRW), Democratic Republic of Congo. Trail of Death. LRA Atrocities in North-eastern Congo (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2010).
Justice and Reconciliation Project, “˜Kill every living thing: the Barlonyo massacre’, Field Notes, no. 9 (February 2009).
Katy Glassborow, “˜ICC Investigative Strategy Under Fire’, Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), 27 October 2008 (www-text:https://iwpr.net/global-voices/icc-investigative-strategy-under-fire).
Ledio Cakaj, “˜The complex story of a child soldier’, Washington Post, (12 January 2015).
Luke Moffett, “˜ICC can still hold Ongwen’s trial in northern Uganda’, Daily Monitor, 15 January 2015 (www-text: http://www.monitor.co.ug/OpEd/Commentary/ICC-can-still-hold-Ongwen-s-trial-in-northern-Uganda/-/689364/2589236/-/g7b4u7z/-/index.html
The International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic, Final Report (UN doc. S/2014/928; 22 December 2014).
Thijs B. Bouwknegt, “˜How did the DRC become the ICC’s Pandora’s Box?, African Arguments, 5 March 2014 (www-text: https://africanarguments.org/2014/03/05/how-did-the-drc-become-the-iccs-pandoras-box-by-thijs-b-bouwknegt/)